"Look, I know you have to be cautious and you don't know me and all, but I'm desperate. You have to help."
The young woman could easily be attractive, Cordelia thought. She was tall and her movements had an athletic grace that wasn't quite hidden by her drooping lassitude. Her long blonde hair was only a little untidy, a few strands escaping from the clip at the back of her neck. And her open face would have benn sunshiny with golden freckles if she hadn't been looking to wan.
The scuffed sandals, jeans, t-shirt, and plaid lumbershirt were just the current youth fashion and, in themselves, not a sign of decline. Cordelia sympathized with the girl's obvious worry, but shook her head, miming puzzlement. A witch couldn't be too careful, even in these skeptical times.
"Let me just explain my problem, please. You don't have to admit anything, right?"
Cordelia shook her head again and brushed past, curling herself slightly around her bag of groceries. Two doors further down the pathway, she turned toward her own door and saw that the young woman was right behind her.
Either extremely softfooted or a touch of talent. Cordelia drew breath for a disclaimer and brushoff, but the girl spoke first.
"Hey! Comfrey! I can never get that to grow properly." The girl knelt by the plant beds flanking Cordelia's door. She touched leaves as if greeting old friends.
"Feverfew. Allheal. Artemesia - four kinds. Hyssop. Pennyroyal. Does the tansy really repel flies?"
The girl's energy seemed to rise. Cordelia stared resentfully but could not, at the last, turn her away. Silently she opened her unlocked door and entered, refraining from closing the door behind her. It was not a welcome, though Cordelia doubted that her unguest understood the import of that.
Certainly she was sufficiently encouraged by the open door to enter. Perhaps it was mere intuition that prompted her to close the door only ajar behind her. She didn't sit while Cordelia sorted her purchases into cupboards and drawers, but looked around with a curiosity that was apparently unstifled by either prudence or her present circumstances.
Cordelia scanned the room, herself. Yes, it was obviously a witch's room. If one knew the signs were there to announce it, just as the entry herb bed was a hint. A magpie, leg taped to mimic injury, hopped from perch to perch. Stones and branches and bundles were tucked, here and there, around the single room with adjoining kitchenette and bath. All the furniture was arranged at least one cubit from any wall - bookcases included.
Stowing done, Cordelia crossed her arms and studied her guest, who was examining the bare wood of the coffee table in the center of the room, fingers exploring the haphazard nicks, butns, and stains on its top.
"My name is Anne," said the girl, not looking up, "and my mother is killing me." Here a smile flitted: self-mockery. "Well, not killing me, really, just making my life hell. You see, everything she says about me comes true.
You know all that stuff mothers say to their kids? "Don't go out with wet hair or you'll catch cold?" "Don't swallow watermelon seeds, they'll grow in your stomach?" Well, if she says them to me they become true. Here's her latest."
Anne held out her wrist. "If I drink cola my sweat gets sticky."
Cordelia dutifully felt the offered flesh. Anne was right. Her skin was tacky with exuded sweat and sugar.
Anne pulled back her hand and began pacing. "Look, I know this is my problem. And I've been dealing with it, really I have. But . . ." Annes shoulders slumped.
"See, Mom has this friend named Amily. Amily doesn't have any kids of her own so she pontificates about how to raise everyone else's. And Mom soaks it up.
Mostly it's harmless stuff. You know, like, she convinced Mom that white bread was poison so Mom only bought whole wheat. Mom complained about us not eating it for awhile and then started storing it in the fridge so it wouldn't go bad. And when I got sick eating white bread at someone else's house I just removed the curse. I'm not sure it actually is a curse, but the same removal works.
But now . . . " Anne's sigh seemed to deflate her. She hugged her arms across her middle and hunched around them, rocking. "Now Amily has Mom reading McVey tracts. Have you ever read a McVey tract?"
"I believe," said Cordelia, "that the basic thesis is that there is no such thing as magic and that any young person who shows interest in such preposterous things is sublimating a desire for a stronger family life."
"Yeah, well, you can see why I'm worried. I mean, my magic is the only thing keeping her from turning my life inside out.
Okay, I admit that I'm not very dedicated. If I thought she'd turn herself off, too, I'd mostly shrug and get on with my life. I mean, I have other talents. But it wouldn't work that way, would it?"
"I didn't think so. And the thought of her talent working while mine was dead gives me the shivverwillies. I'd be helpless. You've got to help."
Cordelia agreed that it was horrible and gave Anne a list of things to collect. It was a long list. As the happy girl left, the magpie hopped onto Cordelia's shoulder.
"She didn't notice that you didn't agree to help," it croaked. "She doesn't know that you won't." It flew to a perch on the bookshelf.
"I haven't decided, yet," said Cordelia. "The list will ensure that she is serious about this."
"You've decided. You won't. The list won't stop her. She'll be back. She'll be happy." It flew to the back of a chair. "You don't want to do it, but you don't want to say no. The list won't stop her."
"Enough," said Cordelia, and the bird was silent, if not still. That was the trouble with magpies: their gossip bit through to the meat, to the nerve. It was well known that they were all but impossible to familiarize. Most witches were impressed with Patch. No. They were impressed with Cordelia because of Patch, because of the difficulty. They showed respect for that and, more, because it was known that magpies could snatch information from guests as well as strangers.
What few knew was their inability to leave a witch's own thoughts alone. They would pick and pick, looking for good gossip. They would bite to the meat, to the nerve, to the bone. It took a certain stamina to bear.
"Enough," whispered Cordelia. And she began to make her own list.
[This one is older than most and is complete. I'll try to post the next segment tomorrow.]